My Favorite Mistake — 262: Embracing Failure: Jennifer Heemstra’s Path to Innovation, Scientific Research, and Leadership

My guest for Episode #262 of the My Favorite Mistake podcast is Jennifer Heemstra. She is Chair and Professor of Chemistry, the Charles Allen Thomas Professor of Chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis.

Episode page with video, transcript, and more

Her research makes use of the ability of nucleic acids to self-assemble and recognize other molecules. Alongside her research, Heemstra is a science communicator and writes a regular column for Chemical & Engineering News. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

In this episode, Jen discusses the iterative process of failure and success in her lab, emphasizing the importance of creating a psychologically safe space for her team to experiment and learn. Jen also highlights the critical role of leadership in academic settings and how her unexpected transition into a leadership role has become one of the most rewarding aspects of her career — an “accidental leader” (the theme of a book she’s writing).

Jennifer’s “favorite mistake” concerns a significant misunderstanding of her career path. Initially believing that her role as a professor would be purely research-focused, she quickly realized that it encompassed much more, including leadership and mentorship. This revelation, although initially seen as a mistake, turned out to be the best possible outcome. It fueled her passion for leadership and inspired her to focus on developing a positive and empowering lab culture. Her story underscores the importance of embracing unexpected turns in one’s career and finding value in professional growth.

Questions and Topics:

  • The failures and mistakes we make in research 
  • Advising students about their career paths, and if they want to really focus on research? 
  • Is it rare for a professor to love all aspects of their job? Research, teaching, getting funding, publishing, leading?
  • As chair – have an employer but not a boss – but autonomy?
  • “The Only People Who Never Make Mistakes and Never Experience Failure Are Those Who Never Try”
  • What types of failures are made by students and researchers in your field – and your lab?
  • Amy Edmondson’s three types of failures?
  • A hypothesis that’s disproven vs a technical mistake?
  • Making sure you learn from mistakes?
  • Helping people not beat themselves up?
  • Why and How do you share YOUR failures? And Why is it more important for those with more POWER to share their mistakes?